Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Brasil Brasil Brasil

We have recently been cooking Brazilian-inspired meals. The inspiration for these meals started a while back when Lissa and I popped into Cafe Brasil for a late breakast/lunch (actually it started way back when I was first exposed to Brazilian culture, but that's another story). I wanted to buy a bag of cassava flour to have on hand at home. The bag, unfortunately, sat unopened in my cupboard for a couple of weeks. Then one day while I was wandering the aisles at the grocery store, I noticed a jar of dendê oil (red palm oil) and decided to buy that as well. The palm oil finally helped get my bunda into gear on hooking up some good food, Braza-style.

Before we get to the cooking, let's delve deeper into our ingredients. Cassava (also called yuca, manioc, or tapioca) is a woody shrub of the Euphorbia family native to South America. It is extensively cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions for it's edible, starchy, tuberous root. It can be eaten in a number of ways (see link for more details) but what we have here is the ground meal of the cassava root. I have used tapioca flour many times before as well, but this farinha de mandioca pictured here is more coarsely ground and has a golden color. In Brazil, as well as in West Africa, it is often toasted with smoked meat, salt and spices and called farofa, or gari, respectively. Brazilian farofa recipes typically call for raw manioc flour to be toasted with butter salt and bacon until golden brown. It is an essential accompaniment to feijoada. It is also used in a stuffing for poultry and other dishes, usually containing raisins, nuts and/or finely chopped sweet fruits like apples and bananas (wikipedia.com). I have always had farofa served alongside the main course to be sprinkled on (particularly saucy) dishes, it both soaks up some of the liquid and adds a rich salty crunch.

On to the dendê oil... The first time I tried red palm oil was at Cafe Brasil in a dish called Muqueca Baiana, a slow-cooked seafood stew with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro and of course, the dendê oil which renders the dish a brilliant deep orange color (here's a link to Cynthia Santos' blog Brazilian Cauldron for a recipe). My friend Karen warned me, "don't eat too much of this stuff, you'll get a heart attack." Simply judging by the looks of it I agreed but through a bit of research I have actually found that it's not so cut and dry. It is high in saturated and low in polyunsaturated fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease in high doses, but it seems there is controversy surrounding the how palm oil affects cholesterol. On top of all that, red palm oil has many redeeming nutritional qualities.

Here's a bit on the nutritional value of red palm oil from the ubiquitous wikipedia:

Red palm oil not only supplies fatty acids essential for proper growth and development, but also it contains an assortment of vitamins, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients important for good health. Red palm oil gets its name from its characteristic dark red color, which comes from carotenes such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lycopene—the same nutrients that give tomatoes, carrots and other fruits and vegetables their rich red and orange colors. Red palm oil is the richest dietary source of provitamin A carotenes (beta-carotene and alpha-carotene). It has 15 times more provitamin A carotenes than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes.

O.K., now let's talk about what to do with this stuff.

MEAL #1. I made a muqueca-style chicken dish, a pile of sauteed couve mineira (garlicky greens), a green salad with palmito (heart of palm), and farofa.

For the chicken, I started by dicing and seasoning two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and sauteing them in red palm oil. Once seared on all sides, I set the chicken aside and tossed in a diced onion. Once the onion had softened, I added some minced garlic and continued to sauteed until fragrant. Then the chicken was added back into the pan, along with 1/2 cup of white wine, 1/2 cup of broth (chicken or veggie), another tablespoon of palm oil, some dried thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Now, because the farofa will soak up much of the liquid, I am not too concerned about it being to runny. If you did want to thicken it up, though, just toss in some cold diced butter or a slurry of corn starch (or tapioca flour for that matter!).

Making couve mineira is easy and it's fabulous way of preparing collards, kale, chard, or whatever other greens you may have on hand. Remove the rib from each leaf, then layer them to make a chiffonade. Sautee diced onion in olive oil until translucent, then minced garlic until fragrant, then add the thinly sliced greens. Toss greens to mix, (I add a tablespoon of water to prevent burning the garlic) and continue to stir for 3-5 minutes, until greens are wilted but still bright green. Serve immediately.

MEAL #2.

We decided to celebrate our friend Timerie's birthday by having her and her hubby Christian over for brunch. I made a beautiful fruit salad, a big pot of black beans, poached eggs, farofa, vinagrete (Carioca salsa), and açai mimosas.

Fruit salad: pineapple, banana, apple. A squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of sugar, a chiffonade of mint. That's it. It was sooooooo good. Lissa thought I laced it with ecstacy or something (I didn't though). Let sit covered in the fridge to allow the flavors to marry.

Beans: pancetta, onions, red bell pepper, garlic, bay leaf, oregano. I didn't have the foresight to start soaking dry beans the night before so I just used canned black beans and gave them some extra love. I diced the pancetta and crisped it up in my pot. Then I added diced onion, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, salt, black pepper and my beans. Let it simmer. Done-zo.

Farofa: cassava meal, butter, onions, parsley, salt. Pretty simple...melt the butter sautee the onions, add the parsley and sautee until crisp, add the cassava meal and toss until golden brown. Mmmmmmmm.

Vinagrete (pronouced vee-nah-GREH-chee): diced onion, tomato, bell pepper, and 1/2 jalapeño, olive oil and vinegar (I used coconut vinegar). Combine ingredients and let chill covered in fridge to allow flavors to marry. A word about this vinagrete stuff. Somewhere between a salsa and a vinaigrette, the first time I had Brazilian vinagrete was for a barbaque at my friend Eli's house. We had a pile of grilled beef, vinagrete, farofa, and beer. Instructions: take slice of meat, dip in farofa, spoon vinagrete on top, tilt head back, chew and moan with delight, drink beer, smile wide.

Eggs: poached. The classic trick is to put a tablespoon or so of vinegar in the poaching water to help the whites coagulate. Check helpwithcooking.com if you want more detailed instructions on how to poach an egg.

Libations: açai and passion fruit mimosas. Cha! We needed something to wash down all that toasty farofa!! I bought a couple of Sambazon rainforest blends, which are VERY healthy by the way, and a bottle of prosecco. Oh yeah, I am kind of anal about things matching, and we only have two champagne glasses, so I had to serve the mimosas in wine glasses.

Accoutrements: mozzarella cheese, avocado, pepperoncini Calabrese.

Christian couldn't wait to dig in...

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